This story originally appeared in Labor Notes on Oct. 26, 2021. It is shared here with permission.
The people and workers of Puerto Rico are suffering the consequences of the privatization of our electricity system, which has been handed over to a new company, LUMA Energy, a subsidiary of Houston-based Quanta Services and Canadian firm ATCO.
Our union, UTIER—the Puerto Rico Electric and Irrigation Industry Workers Union—has been fighting for months against the disastrous contract that the Puerto Rican government signed with LUMA to operate our electricity grid for the next 15 years.
Privatization has dismembered the electrical system’s workforce in a transparent attempt to break up our union. LUMA was not required to hire employees of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA)—the public company whose assets were privatized. Nor did LUMA comply with the existing collective agreements between PREPA and its unions. Instead, LUMA offered reduced benefits and job protections.
LUMA began its contract on June 1 with only half the number of employees PREPA previously had, many of them are untrained and unfamiliar with our electrical system. The result has been ongoing outages and customer service debacles. If a major hurricane had hit Puerto Rico this summer, the outcome would have been much worse.
Worked Day and Night
Puerto Rico’s electrical workers worked day and night to turn the lights back on after Hurricane Maria devastated our island’s electrical grid in 2017, while then-Gov. Rosselló’s administration was in disarray and help from the mainland took weeks to arrive. Now, more than 3,000 of us have been marginalized, removed from our jobs in the electrical system and arbitrarily transferred to other positions within the Commonwealth government. Instead of preparing for hurricane season, skilled linemen and other electrical workers are now drivers, nurse aides, office assistants, or maintenance workers.
Privatization has already cost the government of Puerto Rico $750 million just to fund the reserve accounts required under the contract. That’s $750 million that could have been spent on our schools, public health system, or pensions, all of which have faced significant cuts thanks to austerity imposed by Puerto Rico’s undemocratic Financial Oversight and Management Board (PROMESA).
Nothing in the contract protects the people of Puerto Rico from increases in electricity rates. LUMA is not required to generate savings, nor will it face financial penalties if it goes over budget. In fact, in the months it took preparing to take over the system, the company already went 20 percent over budget, more money paid by the people of Puerto Rico.
The contract also does not penalize LUMA if Puerto Rico’s renewable energy goals are not met. Puerto Ricans spend more than a billion dollars each year paying for imported oil and natural gas, resulting in some of the highest and most volatile electricity rates in the United States. Together with environmental and community groups, UTIER advocates for a transformation to a decentralized grid based on renewable energy to achieve resilience and affordable electricity rates.
This contract highlights the lack of commitment of the Financial Oversight and Management Board to the economic recovery of Puerto Rico. In its push to impose austerity on Puerto Rican unions, the Board has defended a contract that will result in higher costs for our people and that does nothing to promote renewable energy on the island.
UTIER and all electrical workers, truckers, service employees, and teachers in the Puerto Rico labor movement are coming together to demand not only an end to this destructive privatization contract, but a true transformation of our electrical system, which is based on a commitment to 100% renewable energy.
UTIER members went on strike this spring with a strategy of refusing to apply to work for LUMA. Our goal is to return the electrical system to the public, and to get rid of LUMA and its intentions to raise electricity rates, undermine the gains of electrical workers, and destroy what took us 79 years to build. It is unacceptable that other workers, including some IBEW members from the United States, have decided to work as strikebreakers for LUMA in Puerto Rico. But we trust in the solidarity and support for our struggle to be able to take back our company with all of our rights, including the union that has represented us for the past 79 years.
Scabbing on the Island
by Mícheál Madden
Unions in the United States often make calls for solidarity, but sometimes it is the unions themselves who undermine that solidarity and participate in scabbing. This is the unfortunate case in Puerto Rico, in which IBEW Local 222 members from Florida have been brought in under the private contract with the Puerto Rican government in order to cripple the Puerto Rican UTIER national union and steal its right to the reconstruction of the electrical grid.
According to the San Juan Daily Star, LUMA reached a project labor agreement (PLA) with Local 222 in June “for all contracted, major construction [transmission and distribution] projects as part of the transformation of Puerto Rico’s energy grid.”
As Robert García Cooper, secretary of the Bayamón chapter of UTIER and member of IBEW Local 342, put it: “Imagine that the government decides to unilaterally change existing laws in order to nullify your collective bargaining agreement and disband your electrical utility union by assigning you and your fellow electrical utility workers to work in other government agencies as security officers, heavy vehicle drivers, messengers, and other non-electrical-related fields. Imagine that while you are being displaced, demoted, and downgraded, and while the issue is being handled in Court, the incoming electrical utility concessionaire, instead of simply being willing to even recognize the local electrical workers union, decides to call upon another electrical workers union to work as scabs. I never imagined Local 222, or any local of the IBEW, would ever do the shameful work of playing scab-trader and be part of the scheme to dismantle a fellow electrical utility union.”
What can you do to help UTIER and the people of Puerto Rico maintain their power, water, and sovereignty? Sign the petition from LabourStart supported by 30 million members of the Public Service Workers International. If you are a union member or electrical worker, speak out against the scabbing by IBEW Local 222 and the union’s involvement in the privatization of the island’s energy grid, and ask them to stand by UTIER in recognition of its members’ sole right to work on the reconstruction of the power grid of Puerto Rico.
You can also pressure Congress to conduct a full investigation into the privatization. The office of Southern Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva is going to be conducting a hearing on the LUMA contract next month, but this process needs to develop into a Congressional investigation if it is going to have consequences.
Mícheál Madden is a member of IATSE Local 16 and a representative on the San Francisco Labor Council.